The night before our flight to Shanghai was absolutely hectic, full of tears, sweat, and all the chaos in between. It was as if some magical elf had barged into my room, stole all that seemed insignificant but now, full of purpose, and snuck out unnoticed- in a matter of a few seconds. Before you visit China, watch my video.
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By the time I had gathered what I needed and “cleaned” up after the mess (i.e. stuff everything underneath my bed), I dived head-first into a dilemma all women dread and know well.
I stalled for hours: a pair of jeans or a dress?
Pants appealed as the practical option, more appropriate for the long flight and miles of touring on foot. But, I thought that, if I were to encounter the perfect gentleman, my beat-up-jeans and stained shirt would hardly impress.
From an analytical perspective, these “impossible” expectations stem from an inherent desire for happily-ever-after, proposed by Disney to be achieved solely through romance- or monetary satisfaction. Ridiculous, I know. Superficial, I admit. Still, I couldn’t help but fantasize that this trip would be a life changing adventure.
It wasn’t- or, at least, not what I had imagined.
The second I stepped out of the airport, I felt severely out of place, not because of the people but from all the yellow cabs swerving around traffic, swarming each exit like bees around honey. Considering that the suburb’s demography estimates to a million Asians per taxi, the experience in the latter was quite different from home.
Surprisingly, we didn’t check into a hotel. Instead, we drove past all the extravagant complexes, the restaurants and tourist attractions until we came across a sign that read “Lao Ming Lu”. By then, street venders and pollution resided on both sidewalks; the stray dog count was up to five, with one rummaging through the trash for leftovers. Each crack in the road merged with the city’s shameless air, never silenced, only muffled through the passenger’s window.
When we had finally arrived, I wasn’t expecting a poor, worn-out apartment on the bridge of collapse. I wasn’t prepared to climb up six stories or live in a room with barely enough space for us to sleep. I was frustrated at how the toilet would barely flush and how the hot water would turn off in minutes. A fairly modest place, I could cope with, but this was on a whole new level of austerity.
This filthy, outdated complex turned out to be my father’s old home, where he was born, raised, and had lived when he was my age. No music, no laptop, no Wi-Fi, no cell-phone. Yet, as a child, he had possessed something greater: hoarded scraps with the potential of any gadget in the world.
Over the dinner table, he recalled how he had hauled water from a pump blocks down, the times he had to cook for himself in his parents’ absences. My grandpa nodded in agreement; beside him, my grandma chuckled, raising her chopsticks for another serving of tofu. Amidst the stories of poverty, the hunger, the struggle, the mess, their smiles never once faded. I didn’t understand.
During the month I spent in this household, however, I caught a glimpse of why their laughs outshined any I’d ever seen- even here- in the land of promise and freedom. Through the hardships, they discovered happiness in a priceless family bond. Their smiles were not at all tainted by impoverished misery, but rather embellished with an appreciation for life. Contrary to Disney, fairytales will never come true through money or love. There exists only one kind: the fairytale of thanksgiving.
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